- Mike Triplett, ESPN Staff Writer
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When someone suggested that Harper had “been here since the beginning” as a second-round draft pick in that sensational 2006 draft class, Harper cracked, “Not the beginning. That was like ’60-something.”
But Harper did acknowledge that it’s been great to be a part of the best eight-year run in the history of the Saints' franchise.
“Yeah, man, it’s crazy that we’ve still got guys here that are still playing at a high level, and we’ve been starting since our rookie year,” Harper said of fellow draft classmates Marques Colston, Jahri Evans and Zach Strief -- not to mention a certain free-agent pickup from that year, Drew Brees. “And we’ve got a lot of games under our belt, we’ve won a lot of games and we really helped turn this whole system, this whole team, this whole feel of this town around. And it’s been great. It’s been a special deal being a part of that. And you’ll always be remembered, the fans here will remember you forever.”
Harper holds a strange place in the hearts of the Saints’ fan base. Although he’s a two-time Pro Bowler who thrived as a blitzer and open-field run-stuffer in his three years under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011, Harper also had some high-profile struggles in pass coverage in playoff losses at Seattle and San Francisco.
But it’s impossible to look at Harper’s career (646 tackles, 17 sacks, 14 forced fumbles and 7 interceptions) and not consider him a key part of the Saints’ golden era.
Longtime teammate and fellow safety Malcolm Jenkins joked that even he sometimes hears some of the negative comments from fans about Harper -- whom he considers his closest friend on the team.
“He might get a bad rap sometimes,” Jenkins said. “But he’s got a lot of respect in this locker room.”
Harper’s days in New Orleans could be numbered because he has become more of a part-time player at age 31, he is scheduled to make $3.15 million in salary and bonuses next year, and the Saints will have to do some serious trimming to get under the salary cap.
It’s possible the Saints will offer Harper the opportunity to come back at a reduced rate, though -- as they did with him this year, and as they did with veterans Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma this past offseason before those players landed on injured reserve. All three of those longtime defensive leaders could potentially be gone next year, among others.
If this is Harper’s last hurrah with the Saints, he has a chance to finish on a high note. He’ll play a bigger role with the Saints down the stretch now that rookie starter Kenny Vaccaro is out for the season with an ankle injury.
15hEric D. Williams